Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pages. Tr. $15.34, ISBN: 978-1-41690-356-7
Plot: In a psychiatric hospital, three teens all work on recovering from the deep wounds that led them to attempt suicide. For Vanessa, it was increased pressure and stress with no one to lean on that led her to the brink. Her father’s out of the picture, her mother is losing her mind, and she has to protect her father. Conner is gorgeous, a perfect student, and a fantastic athlete. He seems to have a perfect life, but none of his accomplishments are ever enough for his parents. A failed romance with a teacher leads Connor to the edge. – and to reach for the gun. Tony’s life is a living nightmare. His father was never around, his mother is more interested in sex than in her child, and he’s been sexually molested. Confused about his own sexuality, he ends up overdosing on drugs. When the three meet at Aspen Springs, Tony and Vanessa connect, but Conner is slower to open up. Together, the three form an uneasy alliance and become friends, though there is a love triangle; Tony falls a bit for Vanessa, but he’s sure that Vanessa is attracted to Conner. Everyone assumes that Tony’s gay, but he’s not even sure. When the three go on a rigorous camping trip – a final challenge – pushes the three in ways that they couldn’t have imagined. Will all three overcome their demons and be able to get through it and move on?
Critical Evaluation: Written in free verse, like all of Ellen Hopkins’ YA books, Impulse rides on the confessional power of the narrator’s voices. All three tell their stories in the first person; it’s a technique that can interrupt the flow but it can also create more tension and suspense. Just when you’re expecting an important truth from Tony, you may hear from Conner. The hospital setting allows the author to force three wounded kids together and see how they connect, and how they don’t connect. Watching the way they bounce off of each other is interesting, and you can see that having troubled kids in the same place for recovery can be a boon and it can also cause more emotional ping-ponging. For these kids, the connection is mostly positive. The only time that one starts doing poorly is when the character retreats from the triangle. Hopkins’ characters are complex and deeply troubled, and she does a wonderful job of revealing all the pitfalls involved in recovering and attempting to get stronger. This is a disturbing but enlightening book about trauma, recovery, and the power of reaching out to another.
Reader’s Annotation: When three teens who have attempted suicide meet at a psychiatric hospital, they form an uneasy triad on the path to recovery, but will they all make it through?
Author bio: After being adopted by older parents, Ellen Hopkins grew up in Palm Springs and the Santa Ynez Valley, in California. She went to U.C., Santa Barbara, studying journalism, until she dropped out to raise a family and start a business. The marriage fell apart and she closed the business when she met her new husband. She began a writing career after that new start.
She has three biological children, and she has adopted Orion, her grandson. Hopkins’ book, Crank, was inspired by watching her own daughter in the throes of her addiction to crystal methamphetamine, a drug which ripped her daughter’s life apart. There were two follow-up books in the series, Glass and Fallout. Hopkins’ specializes in writing about kids in trouble – drugs, self-mutilation, abuse – from their perspective, all in a her signature verse poetry style, which gives her work an immediate, occasionally hallucinogenic feeling.
Genre: Realistic fiction.
Curriculum Ties: N/A
Booktalking Ideas: Focus on the characters – that’s the power of the story. Choose a powerful section from each of the characters’ narratives and read. You could also write a couple of the lines down and have kids in the audience stand up and read them. Then talk about the characters and ask them to connect the quotes to the character.
Talk about what it takes to heal from a horrible childhood. Is it possible? How do kids cope?
Discuss the power of making connections with others to heal and then discuss how hard it would be to connect with someone when you’ve been hurt.
Talk about healthy vs. unhealthy ways of coping with emotional pain and then talk about the book.
Reading Level/Interest Age: 9th grade and up
Challenge Issues: Cutting, sex, mental illness.
Response: Listen carefully to the challenge. Emphasize that this is a book about healing and getting over problems. Cite the positive reviews. Keep a file of positive reviews on hand and know the content of the book well.
Why Included: Teens respond to these books – they are very intense and good for struggling readers. The strong voices and rich characters make them gripping reads.